Self-publishing: options for translators and authors

There are lots of people who know lots more about self-publishing than I do; but after 10 years in the trenches (yes, I’ve been self-publishing since before the iPhone existed!), I’ve had a bunch of hits and misses that might benefit other people. My experience in self-publishing comes from writing and self-publishing four of my own books, translating two books for self-published authors, and selling the translation rights (Portuguese, French and Italian) to one of my books. So here goes!

This post was prompted by an inquiry I received from a self-published author who’s finishing his first book (in French) and wants to have it translated into English. Many of the inquiries I receive from self-published authors run along these same lines: “I want to have my book translated into English; how much will it cost and how long will it take, and how does the process work?” Which are all reasonable questions. Eve Bodeux and I recently recorded a podcast on the nuts and bolts aspects of self-publishing (which we’ll release later this month–and we already released an episode about the actual books), but first let’s look at these more conceptual aspects.

The way I look at it, a self-published author-translator pair has three options:

  • The relatively traditional route, where the author essentially functions as the publisher, paying the translator (either all at once or in installments) to translate the book, and then handling the production and marketing aspects himself or herself.
  • The royalty-sharing route, where the translator receives little or no up-front payment, but receives some percentage of the royalties on the translated book, either for a defined period (like the first year) or indefinitely.
  • The translation rights sale route, where the author sells the translator the translation rights for the translator’s target language, and then it’s up to the translator to translate, publish and market the book.

The best option depends on the situation, and on your perspective. As a translator, I prefer the first option, where the author pays me (normally in installments) outright for the translation, normally under the same terms as a publisher would. See the PEN model contract for literary translations for an example. I always help with marketing the book to the extent that I can, but the onus to produce and sell the book is largely on the author. Whether this model is good for the author depends on the book’s sales potential; most of the book translations I’ve done run in the range of US $6,000-$9,000 for the translation. That’s definitely a lot of money for an independent author. But at the same time, investing that amount may give the author access to a much larger market (since I translate into English) than their original language does. For example I generally earn about US $500 a month in royalties on my business books for translators, so it would take 12-18 months to recoup that amount if the sales in the other language were similar. This relatively traditional model, perhaps in combination with a royalties arrangement, is also (probably..although I’ve been wrong before!) the most likely to appeal to established translators who earn their living from translation.

Then there’s the royalty-sharing option. On the face of it, this option can be a win-win for the author and the translator. Let’s say that the author and the translator agree to split the first two years of royalties 50/50. Theoretically, this gives the translator a strong incentive to do a good translation and help market the book, but it also relieves the author from fronting out thousands of dollars before the book is published. Great, right? My only concern is that this model is probably most appealing to beginning translators, or at least beginning book translators, who are still establishing their credentials and are thus more motivated to work in exchange for a promise of future revenue. For example I might have agreed to this kind of arrangement when I had never translated a book, but now (six books in…), I probably would not. There’s also a trust component: what if the author never gets around the publishing the translation, for example. And, as an author, you’d also want to find translators who have good contacts among people who might read your book, so that they can market it effectively.

Finally, there’s the translation rights sale route, which I’ve recently experienced with my own book (third edition of How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator). From the author perspective, I really like this method, and so far I’ve sold the translation rights for Portuguese, French and Italian. I don’t love the production aspects of self-publishing (layout, cover, indexing, etc.) and I don’t really have an interest in marketing my book in countries where I don’t speak the language. I allow the translators to pay in installments as long as they don’t publish the translation before the total amount is paid, and then the rest (production and marketing) is up to them; they can sell the translated book in print or electronic form worldwide. Again, it’s best if the translators can market the book within their existing networks. For me, this was fairly easy as my book is for translators; but if you wrote a book about dog training, you’d probably want to market the translation rights to translators who are also dog lovers, for example. However here again, there are risks: the translator might pay you, but never translate the book, or never publish the translation, or the translation might be horrid and there’s not a ton you can do about it.

I do feel that as self-publishing becomes less of an outlier and more a part of the mainstream publishing world, all of these translation-related options are becoming more viable as well. Self-published translations of self-published books are a logical extension of the explosion in self-publishing, and I think the translation industry is starting to see the effects of that. I also think that if you’re a frustrated literary translator, why not consider self-publishing your translations of books in the public domain, or looking for little-known but amazing authors who want their works translated? Small, traditional publishers have long remarked that when a non-US author’s work explodes, there’s a strong business case for having invested in English translation rights all along. Perhaps that mindset is now crossing over into the world of self-publishing!

Lots of food for thought here; over to you!

14 Responses to “Self-publishing: options for translators and authors”
  1. Claudia May 10, 2016
    • Corinne McKay May 10, 2016
  2. bzayas May 11, 2016
    • Corinne McKay May 11, 2016
  3. Sue Burke May 11, 2016
    • Corinne McKay May 11, 2016
    • Corinne McKay May 12, 2016
  4. BOSSE Nathalie May 13, 2016
    • Corinne McKay May 13, 2016
  5. gaildstorey May 18, 2016
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